Freedom, Equality and Commoning in the Age of the Precariat: an interview with Dirk Holemans
Dirk Holemans is the co-founder and co-director of OIKOS, a green Belgian think tank which has published two dutch-language books by Michel Bauwens. He has written a book which deals with the tension between freedom (individual) and security (social protection etc…). The book is of great interest, because it places the current dilemma’s in the context of the earlier wave of change in the sixties and seventies. With Oikos, Dirk also studies the multiplication of urban commons in Belgium and closely follows the commons-based urban transitions in Ghent. Unlike those that see freedom and security as opposites, Dirk shows how they are co-dependent on each other, and explores what form a new social contract could take, in the age of precarity. The long book exists in a short english essay (recently also available in French and German) . For the benefit of our English-speaking audience, Michel Bauwens interviews Dirk Holemans to share his insights.
Before we start talking about your book, can you tell us a bit about the context that prompted you to write it, and how it fits in your personal quest for understanding social change? I mean, can you say a few words about yourself, your engagement in green politics, and your work with OIKOS?
Twenty-five years ago, I started working as an academic researcher in the field of environmental philosophy and bioethics. With degrees in engineering and philosophy, I tried to understand the role of technology in how people shape their world and dominate nature, to analyse what the importance is of the dominant value system in a society. So, I learned how Modernity radically changed our relation with nature, which from then is an object we as subjects can dominate and manipulate. While this was a rewarding time, it was maybe my engineering background that made me feel that only writing articles and lecturing is not enough to stop the destruction of our living planet. So I joined the Green party and within a few years I first was elected as local councilor of the City of Ghent and subsequently as member of the Flemish Parliament. I learned that politics really matters, being in government we were able to introduce innovative changes in e.g. the care system and energy policy (a law as voted to close the nuclear plants the coming decades). At the same time I experienced that our representative democratic system, established in the 19th century, needs a thorough update. So the first book I wrote was about the need for Deliberative Democracy, acknowledging the value and importance of citizens engaging in an active dialogue.
After being a member of parliament, I founded the green foundation OIKOS, because I believe innovative ideas are the core fuel of societal change. You cannot develop new sustainable systems – think of mobility, energy or food- with old concepts. At the same I noticed how citizens are taking their future back in their hands, becoming from consumer producer again. These citizens’ collectives, commons, are the basis for what I see as the most promising actor of change in our current times.
Your book centers around the tension between freedom, which I read as individual freedom, and security, which I read as more of a collective reality. Can you describe how you see that tension and how you see it as resolvable or not.
In the dominant narrative of our society, we see freedom as an individual quality. But this creates the illusion that we are independent actors that can create our own future and lifeworld on our one. While freedom is maybe the most collective concept we now. How free is someone who is born in a poor country, without a decent educational system? What kind of choices (s)he can make? If freedom is the ability to influence the future development of our world, we can only do it if we work together. That was what the green thinker Ivan Illich meant with autonomy: ‘the joyful capacity to shape the world together’. Anyway, how free are we if the corporations and multinationals determine what we (can) buy. Everyday, we see thousands of advertisements and marketings signals (like logos). Do you really think they don’t influence us in a profound way? So the paradox is that enhancing you personal freedom is working together to change the environment you live. Like the Green mayor of Grenoble did, but getting rid of advertisements boards in public spaces and streets.
Does our welfare system have to change, and if so, how so.
Our current welfare system was built on the assumption of full employment with man working 40 hours a week, staying 40 years with the same employer, in the framework of a decent fiscal system with rich people and big companies paying the fair share of taxes. No need to say that our society has changed in many fundamental ways.
We need what I call a new ‘security package’ for the 21th century, empowering people and allowing them to enrich their community and society. This package is based on the fact that there are three different kinds of work: next to our job, the paid work, there is the care work we do while raising kids, cooking at home etc. and also autonomous work, things we find important, like establishing with people in your town a commons, think about an energy co-op or growing vegetables together. If our goal is a good life for all, we have to make sure people can combine these types of work in a relaxed way. Hence, I suggest the combination of a shorter working week of 30 hours with a universal basic income of 500 euros that for low and middle incomes compensates for the lower salary, in combination with an affordable education and health system.
The number of hours, 30 a week, is not randomly chosen. It is the weekly number most women work who have to combine their job with their family work and personal development. I see the ‘security package’ as a transition model, in the evolution towards a social-ecological society. The more things we do in our autonomous work, products and services who are cheaper and last longer than produced by corporations – think about Wikipedia or platform co-ops for car sharing – will enable to live better with less buying power, allowing to maybe lower the normal working week to 21 hours, as the New Economics Foundation proposes.
What I found very useful in your book is the historical context you are offering about how current social movements, and the surge for the commons in particular, are related to the earlier struggles post-1968. Can you elaborate a bit?
Big corporations – think about Apple – want to make us believe that they invented all the new stuff in our society. Mariana Mazzucato has in a convincing way shown that corporations only can make these products and profits because governments invested loads of money in research and development. On top of this, I want to add that quite a lot of crucial innovations where introduced not by companies or public authorities, but by citizens’ initiatives. Who build for instance the first wind mill to start the transition towards a renewable energy system? It where villagers in the north of Denmark in the 1970’s. Who invented the recycle or thrift shop, the starting point for the circular economy: wise citizens in the Netherlands. The same goes for sharing, with people in Amsterdam experimenting with a bike sharing system, already in the mid 1960’s? These initiatives are part of a broader emancipatory movement with a lot new social movements..
Overall, the emancipatory movement wanted to create more space for citizens by reducing the reach of the state, other traditional structures and multinationals. Looking back, we can say that this movement has been successful, but did not achieve its goal. This is connected with the greater success of the neoliberal freedom concept. This concept of freedom succeeded in reducing the build-up of identity into an individualistic project, where consumption plays a crucial role.
How did it happen? The 1980s and 1990s are the battleground of these two freedom-based concepts. A crucial difference lies in scale: while businesses are organised worldwide, this is less evident for new civil movements and unions. Only the anti-globalisation movement would later bundle forces across borders. Meanwhile, large corporations have taken up the free space for the most part.
A second explanation concerns the evolution of most of the new social movements. Starting mostly from a position of a radical critique, professionalisation and building a relationship with mainstream politicians leads to a pragmatic attitude. Proposals must now be feasible within the framework of the current policy. The increasing dependency on subsidies of many non-governmental organisations has sometimes led to uncritical inscription into government policy options. As said, at the same time, more and more citizens were seduced by the neoliberal narrative that a good life means work hard, earn money and spent it all to be happy. If you don’t feel well, just buy a ticket for a wellness club.
The biggest financial crisis since the 1930’s, which started ten years ago, changed everything again. The crisis is a real wake-up call for a lot of citizens, they realize that if they want a sustainable future for their children, they have to build it themselves. So, we see all over the world a new wave of citizens’ initiatives, rediscovering the emancipatory concept of freedom and autonomy. A crucial difference is that we know live in the age of internet, lowering the transaction costs of cooperation dramatically. What was very hard to realize in the post-68 period, e.g. sharing cars in a neighborhood, is now a piece of cake with digital platforms.
What can we learn from this history? That if social movements want to be successful in a globalized world, they also have to build translocal and transnational networks. It for instance makes no sense that in ten cities in the world, people are trying to build their own digital platform as an alternative for companies like Airbnb or Uber. Transnational networks of commons cities can be the fundament of a new governance model in the future.
Do you have a prescription for our future, and a way to get there? Also to which degree does your book also apply to non-European or non-Western countries?
I don’t have of course the prescription for our future, what I did in preparing my book was observing society carefully, looking for the places and processes of hope. I found two very relevant developments: citizens starting new collective initiatives, commons, for the production of sustainable products and services, and local governments implementing very ambitious policy plans in fields like climate, energy, food and mobility policy.
Slowly but surely, there is a new range of autonomous activities that together form a transformational movement towards a socio-ecological society. It is important to note that we are not only talking about small or isolated projects. Take, for instance, the 20 majestic wind turbines at the coastline of Copenhagen. This project was started by a group of habitants of the city who developed the idea and went with it to their Minister of Energy. Instead of refusing or taking it over, the government decided to start a co-creation process. Civil servants give technical and judicial advice. Half of the shares were owned by a citizens’ co-op, after completion, thousands of families every year receive a financial dividend. Similarly, following the Energiewende in Germany, half of the renewable energy installations are owned by citizens and their co-ops. Even in smaller towns, governments support the local population in setting up renewable energy projects. This adds up to really big business. So, citizens and local governments really can make a difference, and build together the counter current.
My book starts from the history and developments in Europe, so I am really modest on what it has to say to other continents. At the same time, I see the same developments in cities all over the world. There I think the crucial concept of action developed in my book based on the work of André Gorz, revolutionary reformism, really can be very useful. It answers the question how to move a step further, beyond all the individual great citizens’ initiatives and local policy proposals.
The two concepts are each in themselves insufficient. A political revolution that will change everything for good at once – we should not hope for that. And a few reforms of the existing system will not lead to a real structural change. For example, while it’s good that people share cars, this alone will not lead us to sustainable accessibility and mobility. This needs strategic cooperation and planning.
Revolutionary reformism can be defined as a chain of far-reaching reforms that complement and strengthen each other and, at the same time, raise political awareness. In system terms, it is a matter of implementing reforms that are complementary and reinforce each other. This will generate synergy and even positive feedback: virtuous circles. For example, in progressive cities like Ghent you see the establishment of commons if the field of renewable energy, mobility, food, etc. But for most of them they don’t cooperate beyond the borders of their domain. Imagine a food coop distributing their food boxes by another commons specialized in delivery by electric bikes, that in turn only uses green energy produced by the urban energy coop. When they then, supported by the local government, introduce and use the same local currency for connecting their economic transactions, you put in motion a chain in action that will reinforce itself. It is this kind of thinking and action that is crucial for the future, and can be useful all over the world.